Created in man's own image: The Sixties male has come of age and is projecting his identity crisis all over the ad hoardings

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'G O YOUR own way,' says the advertisement for the Ford Probe. Alternatively, you can live 'without boundaries' if you use Ralph Lauren's Safari 'fragrance for men'. Famous Grouse whisky offers 'quality in an age of change', Chanel's men's products are sold with the assurance that 'elegance is timeless', Lee jeans put you in touch with the hard- working folk that built America, and Timberland shoes are built by fanatical craftsmen for real people.

Jack Daniels is made by laid- back old men who sit around deep in Old Dixie doing nothing, Budweiser beer is drunk by blues singers and, most bizarre of all, Perrier water sends you wandering aimlessly through the Arizona desert. Then, we all need four-wheel drive cars in case we have to negotiate a Thai rice paddy.

The advertising messages are clear: we live in an age driven by the cult of authenticity. All these products are luxurious and, strictly speaking, unnecessary. The way they are sold is an expression of what people are thought to want and value above mere utility. This turns out to be authenticity, expressed as culture, continuity, freedom, timelessness and rugged, anti-fashion practicality. Hitching through the desert, wearing superfluously tough shoes or buying into a timeless classicism are badges of an inner self-reliance, individuality and independence.

And, crucially, what links these qualities and points to their deeper significance is their maleness. All the offers of authenticity are being made to men. Women are not expected to respond. Their advertising remains locked in a culture of technophilia and utility. 'I move with the times,' says the hard- faced executive bimbo in the ad for Plenitude by L'Oreal, 'I want progress, performance.' No man appears to want those things; they are inauthentic, crass, superficial, dislocated, frightening. They offer not a settled, confident self but only an endless becoming made futile by the depredations of time.

Now, it has often been observed that the Sixties generation is, finally, in control. It had to happen. The ideologues of Woodstock and self-liberation have dropped back in and are running the system. The grooviest of them, those who were most plugged into the Sixties zeitgeist, have gone into the media, advertising and marketing.

Aged between their late thirties and early fifties, it is they who develop, market and advertise products and images. Some might argue that it is much younger people who have embraced the authenticity culture through their curious obsession with, among other things, heavy-duty footwear: Doc Martens, Caterpillars and Timberlands. But this is to ignore the extent to which the market is manipulated and controlled by the preceding generation. It is, overwhelmingly, their preoccupations and anxieties that surface in the style and content of this image-driven culture. It is they who yearn for authenticity, the cult of the male menopause.

Why they do so is open to speculation, but I have a theory, or, rather, I know exactly why.

To be young, male and groovy in the Sixties was to be possessed by a romantic intellectual error that has clung to the 20th century like a cheap suit. This is the belief that the self is a pure, pre-social entity, which life, society and culture distort and sully. This belief underpins much psycho-analysis - particularly as it is popularised - as well as the entire growth, relationship and self-help industry, with its emphasis on unveiling the true self or the child within.

Its view of the organised human world is almost entirely negative: it is little more than a distorting mechanism that, as it were, scribbles crudely all over the canvas of the self.

The belief is, therefore, dissident, antinomic and restless; it craves the removal of clutter, difficulty and all impediments to freedom of expression. The belief is an error because the very idea of a pre-social self is almost entirely incoherent, but it was an error whose time had come.

In the Sixties the belief was expressed as the liberation of drugs and sex or the communal Utopian innocence of Woodstock. Its implications were intimate and revolutionary. For example, in his 1968 Reith Lectures, when Bernard Leach asserted that 'the family, with its narrow secrets and tawdry privacy, is the source of all our discontents', the liberated ones did not bat an eyelid; it seemed to be so true to their own experience of the clutter of familial ties and emotions.

The belief worked because there seemed to be nothing else. Conventional religion was dying on its feet, old social forms were being detonated by technology and, in Vietnam and through the nightmarish brinkmanship of the Cold War, politics were seen to have gone badly wrong. The human system was self-destructing. Where better to escape than the purity of the inner, liberated self?

But the system did not self-destruct and even antinomians age. The fortysomethings, nursing their inner freedom and individuality, take control. Suddenly the system cannot be rejected wholesale simply because it is The System - it has to be made to work.

For men, this turns out to be a particularly poignant moment. To begin with, these Sixties people had an unprecedented commitment to the idea of youth. Being young was - and, in their imaginations, still is - intrinsically virtuous. Youth is all about the openness and freedom of the self. Young people's tastes are sanctified as the expressions of all that is best, unsullied by custom and culture. 'May you stay,' sang Bob Dylan with an uncharacteristic lack of irony and self-awareness, 'forever young', and the good ol' boys of Woodstock and the Isle of Wight held aloft their Zippos and wept.

Plus, of course, men age badly. Maybe their bodies hold up better, but their minds start crumbling from the age of 30. They are unprotected by women's organising fatalism and commitment to the idea that 'life must go on'. But this life is not enough for men - it fatally lacks poetry, adventure and meaning. So they yearn for transcendence, a yearning most commonly expressed in the form of the 'mid-life crisis'.

But their own ideology makes transcendence vague and elusive. Certainly there is the work frenzy, but to lose yourself in work is to sustain The System. And, if you must stay in the system you once so viciously condemned, what can possibly be done?

Attempting to seek the true self is hard work and career destroying. Is our man really prepared to go back on the road, to be a New Age traveller or a communard? They look silly, those lined faces and increasingly high-mileage bodies in crushed velvet; besides, the new hippie life lacks the old resonance of the days of dope and napalm.

Three solutions are commonplace: God, art and sex. Our Sixties graduate finds meaning in the pursuit of heaven, old masters or young mistresses. For different reasons, these do not work. The pure, clear self remains elusive.

In fact, of course, nothing can work, partly because there is no such self, and partly because our man has no faith: he cannot sustain the consistency required by any of these vocations, even the sex, because he is so stricken by the life of change and flow that he embraced so enthusiastically in his youth.

What he can do, however, is feed something of The Truth back into the system. Almost 30 years down the line and heavily modified by the requirements of the marketplace, he finds this tricky. But something can be distilled, and that something is authenticity.

Authenticity attempts to build a new continuity, a new home for the self, on the ruins of the old. Through products and images, it constructs a myth of history, tradition and craftsmanship that places the self in a world of permanence, independence and individuality. 'Out here,' says the ad for the Jeep Cherokee, 'we like to keep a firm grip on two things. The road. And our money.' The Timberland wearer, meanwhile, knows how to keep his feet dry and his grip on the pitching deck.

Dressed and labelled with authenticity, our man is still going to age and die, but at least he will do so in a funky, freewheeling kind of way. He is not, he thinks, taken in by fashion or frivolity. He belongs not to the dreaded unrealities of The System, but to the hard-working outback of real life as it has always been lived - or, if he buys whisky or scent, to the sophistications of ancient 'quality'. Characteristically, he belongs to a dream America because he clings to the old rock 'n' roll myth of America as the land of the infinitely pure and the eternally seeking self.

This is all a fragile, ephemeral phenomenon, a trick of the light and of history. Beneath, however, there is an enduring issue: the creation of a viable, contemporary self, more specifically of a viable male self. And the truth that the ads try to conceal is that, in this world, this can no longer be done.

Of all these ad-men and media types, Calvin Klein sells exactly what cannot be bought. He simply calls his scent for men 'Eternity'.

(Photographs omitted)